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August 4th, 2020:

More on Abbott’s approval rating

Further evidence of decline.

Approval for Gov. Greg Abbott’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic continues to erode, according to a new poll from a consortium of universities.

The survey, conducted through Sunday by Harvard, Northeastern, Rutgers and Northwestern universities, found that 38 percent of Texans approve of the governor’s response to the health crisis, a steep decline from the 61 percent who were supportive in a similar poll in late April.

The authors said Republican governors in states that have seen recent surges, including Abbott, have seen declining approval for their countermeasures that closely mirror those suggested by President Donald Trump. Approval for Trump’s handling of the crisis dropped to 32 percent both nationally and in Texas, according to the poll.

“Across much of the South we see a tight coupling between approval of the president’s handling of the pandemic and approval of the governor’s performance during the pandemic,” they wrote.

[…]

The survey was conducted online between July 10 and July 26 and included 19,052 people from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. It had a margin of error of 6 percentage points.

The authors noted that new weights were given to respondents based on where they lived within the state, and that the results may therefore not be exactly comparable to past iterations. The consortium did six previous rounds of surveys, finding a steady drop in favorability for Abbott’s leadership amid the crisis.

A little googling tells me that this consortium is publishing its work on the covidstates.org website. The report for July is here. It’s interesting and it does correlate with the data that we have from Presidential polls, which don’t always include a question about Abbott’s approval, but it feels like its own thing, and I’m not sure how comparable it is to those other data points. But it does provide its own trend lines, so that’s good. How permanent or transient any of this is, and how much it will matter in 2022 is a question we can’t answer right now. So take this for what it’s worth and we’ll go from there.

An analysis of that Paxton opinion about schools and county health authorities

Short version: That’s just, like, his opinion, man.

Best mugshot ever

The law should mean what it says. Rule §97.6(h) of the Texas Administrative Code says: “The health authority is empowered to close any public or private child-care facility, school or other place of public or private assembly when in his or her opinion such closing is necessary to protect the public health; and such school or other place of public or private assembly shall not reopen until permitted by the health authority who caused its closure.” This law was invoked by the Harris County Health Authority this month , directing that K-12 schools in the county start operations entirely online until at least Sept. 7.

On Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote an opinion that effectively invalidated Harris County’s control order and others. The Texas Education Agency accepted the opinion, and said it will defund schools that follow the orders. On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott added his backing.

While the attorney general’s opinions are non-binding, they are entitled to some respect. So too, though, is the plain language of the law. I believe Paxton has it wrong and that his opinion is likely to kill people.

[…]

The law appears to be clear. The provision of the administrative code cited above gives the power to local health authorities. Despite this, Paxton concludes the law doesn’t mean what it says. He argues if read literally, the law would undercut limitations on the power of local health authorities he believes exist elsewhere in Texas law .

I wouldn’t give that argument a high grade. The “limitations” he cites would cripple local health authority’s power to effectively manage dangerous diseases that cannot survive on surfaces. More importantly, Paxton really can’t explain why Texas couldn’t give local health authorities, who have the authority to take steps such as quarantining an entire county, the (supposedly) limited powers that exist elsewhere and, just as the law says, the explicit power to close schools.

The factual assumptions underlying Paxton’s reading of Texas law are flawed. He writes before closing schools as a form of “area quarantine” (which isn’t the part of the statute the Harris County order relied on), the local health authority must demonstrate “reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease.”

That condition will exist the instant schools reopen.

See here, here, and here for the background. This too is one person’s opinion, in this case a law professor named Seth Chandler. What any of it actually means is uncertain until either someone sues or the counties and school districts all concede. Given his track record and the political stakes here, it’s quite rational to believe that Paxton is not the most trustworthy authority on this, but until a court gets involved he’s what we have. I hope the various county attorneys, as well as the counsel for the affected school districts, are reviewing this carefully and considering all their options.

Enforcing the mask order

Those of you who haven’t been wearing your mask when out in public, shame on you. And also, there may now be consequences for your dumb refusal to do the right thing.

Houston law enforcement officials will begin issuing fines and citations to people who do not comply with the state’s mask order, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Monday.

The mandate from Gov. Greg Abbott requires nearly all Texans to wear face coverings in most public settings and has been in effect since early July.

Turner’s announcement comes as Houston experiences a slight dip in its COVID-19 hospitalization levels and a decline in the rate of positive tests, despite a sustained number of daily new cases. The mayor said police would continue to issue warnings at first, as Abbott’s order requires, before fining people $250 for a second offense.

“For months, we have been focusing on education and not citations, but now I am instructing the Houston Police Department to issue the necessary warnings and citations to anyone not wearing a mask in public if they do not meet the criteria for an exemption,” Turner said.

Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is appointed by Turner, agreed with the mayor’s order, saying it would help limit the spread of the coronavirus. He said HPD’s tally of infected and quarantined officers has grown “very rapidly,” with 108 testing positive and 64 awaiting test results.

[…]

The mayor in April instructed police not to issue fines or citations for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order, winning favor among some of Hidalgo’s critics. Before Monday, he had told police to largely issue warnings when enforcing the governor’s order.

On the one hand, it’s a bit puzzling that the order hadn’t had the threat of a fine behind it before now. On the other hand, given the wishy-washy nature of Abbott’s order, it’s easy to understand why the city wouldn’t be all that interested in putting police resources into “enforcement” of that order. Certainly, the police union was not interested in enforcing the mask order (and yes, that was motivated by the HPOU president’s ridiculous animosity towards Judge Hidalgo), to whatever extent you give their preference weight. I honestly don’t know what difference this is going to make, but I welcome the change. We are moving in the right direction, it would be very nice to move a little faster in that direction, and whatever reasonable step we can take to advance we should take. And boy, do I wish we didn’t have to have debates like this. How much better it would be if people just understood what they need to do and did it.

How risky is music?

I’m very interested in the answer to this.

In any other time, under any other circumstance, the question would seem minor and technical. But today it has taken on both a global significance and pressing deadline: What happens to your breath when you play an instrument?

The answer could contribute to society’s budding understanding of the health risks of attending a classical concert, which will affect major decisions by the world’s largest orchestras.

The Houston Symphony has partnered with researchers at Rice University to try to do just that — study how air particles are spread during a symphonic concert, thus giving orchestras a road map to reopening safely.

The study, funded by the Rice University COVID-19 Research Fund Oversight and Review Committee and expected to be released later this summer, could help symphonies around the world find a way to hold a live concert while practicing safe social-distancing guidelines.

“This is an urgent matter,” said Robert Yekovich, dean of the Shepard School of Music at Rice. “Orchestras are waiting for information on what they’ll be able to do eight weeks from now.”

Ashok Veeraraghavan, Ashutosh Sabharwal, Yekovich and Houston Symphony CEO John Mangum penned the proposal for this study. Both Veeraraghavan and Sabharwal are electrical and computer engineering professors at Rice.

Veeraraghavan and Sabharwal spent June calibrating the machines they’ll use to test a variety of Houston Symphony musicians. They plan to begin the study this month. They’re using “Schlieren photography,” which tracks air flow by observing changes in its density; air itself, being invisible, can’t be tracked directly.

The machines would be able to see just how far an instrumentalist’s breath goes when he or she plays.

“Schlieren optics is a beautiful way of measuring. It’s an elegant technique,” Veeraraghavan said.

As someone who plays a wind instrument in a band that performs at sporting events, I have some interest in the results of this study. As with so many things about COVID-19, there’s conflicting data about how the virus is transmitted through the air, and all we can do is keep studying until we get a consensus. I look forward to the publication of this research.